Addressing questions on women and ecotourism

WOMEN AND ECOTOURISM, by Lois Cemal, 27 August, 2020.

Answers to some questions sent to me recently ( by Ilkay Yorganci at DAU.)

  1. How did ecotourism begin in Büyük Konuk? Whose idea was it? 

I can probably say that my husband Ismail and I were at the forefront of getting ecotourism started in Buyukkonuk. Let me put down the events that led to this.

We arrived in BKK in 1986 and have lived here until the present. We fell in love with the village and its peoples and have observed the flow of changes over the past 34 years.

In regards to tourism, by the mid 1990’s, we were doing informal tours in the village. We began ‘discovery’ tours with foreign resident groups and then ‘olive picking’ with Swedish groups, where they picked olives, took them to the oil mill and left with their own oil. We offered visitors to the village a range of activities- hellim making and bread baking- and collected craft work from local people for visitors to buy. We did trail walking and visited local sites, churches, ruins. We, Ismail and I, registered a partnership business called ‘Delcraft’ in 2000. We had moved into our big stone house so the smaller upstairs apartment that we moved out of was fixed up for tourist accommodation. We registered as a restaurant as well (only open for tours), as I wanted to offer local Cypriot cuisine along with my bread and cheese demonstrations. We created a website, which is still running, called www.ecotourismcyprus.com (it has changed a lot in content, I’m in the process of updating it). We have a craft centre where I have a working Cypriot loom and we demonstrated other crafts like basketmaking, soap making and spoon carving. We always kept goats, chickens, rabbits and even one time, 4 donkeys. I included donkey riding and milking the goats in the village activities.

All this was in Buyukkonuk village, which we realized had rural tourism potential because it was still a functioning, living village and had not been influenced by mass tourism like coastal towns in Cyprus were doing at the time. The village supported an active farming and animal husbandry sector. Women worked at home doing all the traditional things like baking bread in an outdoor oven, keeping flocks of goats and sheep, planting gardens, making sucuk(almond grape juice sweets), tarhana, handiwork, crochet, knitting, etc. some people used donkeys and hardly anyone had cars; most villagers used their tractors like a car, to go visiting or shopping.

Then in 2003, Cyprus was accepted into the EU as all the Cypriot people but only the south part of the island. Times were moving fast and changing. Our own family was growing up, the 3 kids were older and in 2004 Ismail and I were able to attended several courses, seminars and workshops. That year we attended the following:

  1. February, 2004- The first was the local state government’s 6 week ‘tourist guide course and we both became registered tourist guides. It was the first time we heard of the terms ‘eco- or agro-tourism.
  2. April,2004- The border between north and south of Cyprus had been recently opened. The European Union had been giving south Cyprus residents trainings and seminars as part of Cyprus entering the EU and now in the north. The second workshop we attended was called a ‘leadership training’ course, an EU sponsored course in Karpaz put on by the Management Centre, which we both attended. The outcome was the formation of an NGO called the ‘Friends of Karpaz’, of which we were founding members.
  3. June- Invitations to attend seminars in south Cyprus were many, some advertised in north Cyprus papers. There was an advert for a ‘Cultural Development’ seminar at the Hilton Hotel in south Nicosia. This was the third event which we attended. It was sponsored by the International Labour Organization in Turin University, Italy. The representative of the ILO offered us an application for a Post Graduate Diploma course in Cultural Development. Ismail applied and won a full scholarship. He went to Italy, started the course in August, finishing in December.

So, by the end of 2004 we were well equipped with information and were highly motivated. At ILO, Ismail learned LOTS about tourism, the economics of culture, different types of culture (tangible, intangible), the environment (man-made and natural), sustainability, and more. He became our walking encyclopedia on the whole picture of the what, why, who, of ecotourism. We realized that the most important thing about ecotourism was its sustainability and that the grassroots communities, the environment and the local cultural heritage would all benefit from its successful application.

In 2005, while exploring the world wide web, we found information about a newly formed organization in Europe called the Global Eco-Village Network. It consisted of many small communes and groups of people, formed for environmental, social or religious reasons, that joined together as one large civil society organization to be better represented in the expanding European Union. We decided to apply for membership. They accepted our group as supporting members on the condition that they get to know us before they grant full membership. To do this we had to attend 2 annual general meetings and present our vision and mission. Ismail and 2 others from our interested associates in Cyprus went first to Denmark and then to Italy as our representatives. We were accepted into GEN, and became the only registered eco-village in Cyprus, north or south. A short time after this, in 2006, the local state Council of Ministers decided to give Buyukkonuk the label of being the ‘pilot eco-village’, meaning they recognized the village as being the first such oriented village in north Cyprus.

International aid organizations became interested in Cyprus and were searching for NGOs, groups and incentives to support. USAID, Europaid and Turkish Aid were the main agencies that came to our village. Funding projects were written for the municipality as well as civil societies and individuals. Examples of projects completed in BKK include:

- creation of 13 wooden cabins and a picnic area for ecotourism activities

-restoration of mud brick olive mill, creating a museum

- clearing of a 30 km trail network on hills behind village

-refurbishment and expansion of existing tourist premises

-acquisition of solar powered street lamps, a mulching machine and a rainwater collection system

-local youth to Europe to learn about donkey care and use in ecotourism

-3 guesthouses established

-traditional Cypriot restaurant established in old house

-establishment of the BKK Ecotourism Association in 2008 + 2 years of trainings

-beginning of Eco-Day bi-annual cultural festivals

This short history gives an idea of how ecotourism developed and the extent of that development in BKK over the past 18 years. The statements on women and men in relation to ecotourism are my opinion only, made from my observations. While others have also worked at getting ecotourism started in the village of BKK I believe Ismail and I were key players in this. We realize we could not have done what we did without support of many others and I do not deny their valuable contributions. They know who they are.

  1. How did the women get involved with ecotourism? (Did they want to get involved at the beginning? Who encouraged them? How were they encouraged?)

In the beginning, interest in ecotourism began spreading across north Cyprus following workshops and seminars put on by the aid agencies, in the cities and in the rural sectors. Information was presented showing how ecotourism was a form of responsible tourism that would protect the culture, traditions and environment of the people and country. However, not much interest developed among the grassroot farmers and workers. Even when seminars came to Buyukkonuk village, the men attended out of curiosity but the women stayed at home. Lack of internet access or computers and transportation were other factors that slowed the information getting to the rural sector people.

Specifically, regarding the question of how women got involved in ecotourism I would like to review the situation of why the average woman in the rural sector did not have the same access to new information. Most married women were caring for children and involved in housework and the agricultural activities of their families. These women were unpaid, meaning they worked only for the family and not in jobs or employment outside the home. They had to ask their menfolk for cash to buy things and were often questioned on why they needed money and what they wanted to spend it on. Also, some women were self-conscious of their lack of, or low level of, education. Most did not proceed beyond primary school, some to high school but some had no literacy at all. I the recent past, girls especially did not receive much more than primary level as they were expected to help at home.

For most Turkish Cypriot rural women (in BKK) even in the 1990’s, their menfolk were the ones that made decisions, held the family’s money and expected to be cared for by them. Ladies were not encouraged to walk about alone in the village and certainly not in the fields. They moved around with family members or a group of other women friends. Even to walk past the men’s coffee house was discouraged as men might make comment about their appearance and their husbands might hear of it. There were few private cars and women did not drive. There were buses that went into Famagusta in early morning for students, hospital visits and shoppers but as it returned at 2pm, there was little chance of looking for work outside the home.

As a result, hardly any village women participated in early meetings. It was October, 2007, when a committee of about 10 interested people had been formed and began working together with USAID, that a decision was made to have a festival in the village. It was planned for 2 weeks later, and would be an event to present and advertise village cultural products available in BKK to the local Cypriot public. The staff of USAID included a visiting ecotourism trainer who gave excellent ideas to the ladies, and the few men, that attended these first meetings. It was olive picking season and olives and oil were available, plus carob syrup was made at this time. Women in the community were asked to make traditional breads and pastries, lemonade, sweets, crafts and sell their farm produce. They were very reluctant, asking ‘who will come?’, ‘who will buy?’, ‘what if things don’t sell?’ and other worrying questions.

On the day of the festival there were 27 stalls in the main square of the village. The women were suggested to dress as rural women, wearing head scarves and aprons. Only 2-3 of the stalls had husbands helping their wives. The festival was advertised in the local paper and about 1000 people from outside the village attended, even from far towns. It was a great success. Everything was sold. They ran out of food to eat and even bottled water in the whole village was finished very early. There were bi-communal folk dancers and Cypriot music was played. The atmosphere was great and visitors were very excited. Our village mayor, who had been reluctant at first, was surprised when he was highly praised in the newspapers and by colleagues. Even, our President at the time, Mr. R. Denktash, came informally to the festival and congratulated everybody.

I personally gathered a rough estimate on what each stand made financially. My information showed that at this first eco-festival each stand averaged the equivalent of one week’s minimum wage. This was the first money some of the women had ever made! It was a great incentive and they were ready for more.

At the meeting the next day to discuss the festival, we all of a sudden had many more people, mainly women, knocking at the door, wanting to join. ‘Let’s have another festival next month!’ everyone said. We decided to make the next one in May the following year, and that’s how the bi-annual Eco Day festivals began. It was at this time that we registered to become a civil society. Women were encouraged by the founders of the association and the staff of the funders (USAID, EuropeAid) to join and benefit from many trainings and workshops.

  1. What did their husbands think about their getting involved with ecotourism? Did they want them to get involved? If they did not, what were their objections? )

Many husbands did not support their women to be active and did not even come to the first few festivals. There was a general wariness of outsiders coming into the village and trying to organize the farming activities. Many times, attempts had been made to introduce new crops or initiatives only to have them fail in a year or two and farmers had to bear lost expenses. Later, however, after the success of the initial festivals, the men allowed the women to participate as they would be bringing money into the family by selling the family’s produce, like olives, olive oil, honey, almonds, sweets, as well as breads, pastries, scarves, village brooms, and more. Some men, like those who were helping their wives, saw the potential of such festivals to their advantage, as otherwise every year they had to chase up customers for their products. Now the customers were coming to them.

  1. Did the husbands help them in any way with their ecotourism efforts?

After the initial success at the festivals, husbands became pro-active and tried to help their wives with the stand. The festival rule was to have two people on each stand, one to handle the money and the other to handle the food; so sometimes husbands helped in this way. Containers had to be non-plastic so the men would help shop for paper bags and glass bottles, and help to prepare items for sale.

In the case of fresh cooked foods, some husbands began to stay at home and prepare more items for his wife when the supply ran low at the stand. The fresh products would be sent up to the festival area with their son or daughter so the woman could sell more. This worked with items like bulgur kofte and other fried pastries and borek. It became a family affair.

  1. Did the husbands change their minds once women became involved with ecotourism?

As the festivals grew each year to become more popular, and the trainings in hygiene, packaging, innovation, and product development continued, products improved and sales went up. In a few years, women averaged a month’s minimum wage at each festival! It was a large gain for their families and men began seriously to help their women produce more and sell more. Also, as products were required to have contact information labels such as name of producer and their contact phone number, at off-festival times the customers could contact the women to order products they liked. Many cottage industries were set up in this way. Other women in the community and even in other villages, began organizing themselves to keep their customers supplied with fresh cheeses, breads, dried goods like raisins, almonds, olives, oil and more. Their empowerment had made them entrepreneurs. Many now work on an equal basis with their husbands.

  1. Did the advent of women generating income for the family alter gender relations within the family and in the community?

Yes, women became self-confident. They were comfortable in creating their goods for sale as it was required that what they brought for sale be authentic and traditional Cypriot products. I have always felt that women are an essential part of Cypriot culture as they know the motifs, the designs, the cuisine, the songs, the traditions. Now they were initiating something that their menfolk could not do without them. They were now capable of earning for the family by working from home, doing things they do every day. They had learned the essentials of hygiene, authenticity, and to value what they grew and harvested. For example, almond trees had been ignored as being not useful anymore as supermarkets were selling imported almonds. Now, Cypriot almonds have value and trees are carefully tended to collect their crops. Before, carob trees were cut down for firewood, but are now being replanted. Families with women who are active in ecotourism are well thought of in the community. Men do not suppress their women as before and their daughters are encouraged to study and have careers.

When the Eco-Day festivals continued for the next few years they got larger and more inclusive. Sellers from other villages wanted to come and sell. Other villages started their own festivals along different themes but had the same basic idea of promoting Cypriot culture and traditions. All around the rural sector events were being organized, supported by the rural men and women selling their home grown, homemade products. Ecotourism has created more gender parity as women seek their own work and contribute to the family income.  

  1. Finally, what was the position of women before the development of eco-tourism in the village and how did this change after their involvement with ecotourism?

Summarizing, before ecotourism women were more socially suppressed. Men had control of the family decisions and finances. Women were not expected to work outside the family home and had to devote her efforts to helping her husband in agricultural/animal husbandry work. They were not expected to express opinions on political issues and had to vote for who their husband dictated. They had to be there to serve their husbands, eg. their meals.

After ecotourism, women became empowered. They are now deciding where the extra income could be spent. They are learning to drive, some have cars of their own and are buying modern conveniences like dishwashers, new kitchen cupboards, even family holidays. Many mature women have used their extra confidence in themselves to seek work in local hotels, restaurants and stores now that their children are older. Girls and young women are encouraged to study further and go to university. They are making careers for themselves. Some are even entering politics on a local level. In the words of one village lady, ‘You can’t stop us now!’

During the early stages of this metamorphosis, the women had to attend many trainings and meetings. Initially, when they got the phone call from their husband that he was home and ‘come put dinner on the table’, the ladies would excuse themselves and go home. After a while, when they got that same phone call, they were heard to say. ‘Your dinner is in the oven. I’m at a meeting.’ We organizers were ecstatic to hear things like this. It meant that the village women have achieved a lot, were more in control of their own lives. They were more empowered.

Ecotourism’s success can also be demonstrated in the many other villages, mainly through women’s groups, that have chosen to copy what Buyukkonuk had done, to hold festivals themselves, to revive traditional customs, foods, dances, songs, and to earn for their families while helping to preserve Cypriot culture and traditions. Ecotourism is a good thing and it is in Cyprus to stay.

Written by Lois Cemal, Buyukkonuk. 27 August, 2020

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